PINE HILL, Ala. – A $100 million, ultra-modern manufacturing facility located just outside of a small town in Wilcox County has begun turning out copper tubing for heating and cooling systems, appliances, refrigeration units and plumbing. But the GD Copper USA plant, located in one of Alabama’s most economically distressed counties, has also been able to produce an abundant supply of a completely different kind of product – hope.
How GD Copper USA – part of the China-based Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group – landed on a pine-covered 100-acre tract in Wilcox County is a story that illustrates how Alabama communities and agencies can work in unison to bring an economic development project to a successful conclusion.
The project returned to the spotlight this week as Golden Dragon Chairman Li Changjie joined Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and other officials at a grand opening event at the plant, which will employ more than 300 people once full production is reached.
At first glance, Wilcox County, an area with around 12,000 residents and no direct interstate access, appears a long shot for international investment. George Alford, manager of the Wilcox County Industrial Development Authority, concedes that before GD Copper came along, the county hadn’t had an industrial announcement in more than 35 years.
But the close working relationship between Alford and Thomasville mayor Sheldon Day in nearby Clarke County helped land the deal, even after it appeared to be lost in 2011.
Originally, the GD Copper facility was supposed to go to a 52-acre site in Thomasville, which had beaten out more than 60 other locations, including much larger cities like Dallas and Little Rock. Then GD Copper’s plans suddenly changed. The company informed Mayor Day that the scale of its project was tripling, making the Thomasville site too small.
At the moment the bad news came in August 2011, Day just so happened to be meeting with Alford. The two had been working on a plan to develop what today is known as the Thomasville/West Wilcox County Industrial Park at Sunny South, a 274-acre property that had rail access and infrastructure in place. The Golden Dragon engineers also happened to be in Alabama that day, so Day quickly produced a map that showed them the site near Pine Hill.
The new location got the OK from the Golden Dragon officials, and the project had a new Alabama home. State agencies jumped in the push the project along. ADECA, for instance, provided Pine Hill with an $866,000 grant for improvements to its water and sewer system, augmented by $1.8 million in funding from Economic Development Administration. Plus, the Alabama Department of Transportation constructed an industrial road and bridge to serve the project.
“We called it ‘Project Hope’ and it has given the people in Wilcox County hope and showed them that if you stick with something you can make it happen,” said Alford.
Though production started only recently, the state-of-the-art GD Copper facility already has helped change attitudes about the Wilcox County area and its ability to support industry. Both Alford and Day said the area is getting new looks from expansion-minded companies in the wake of GD Copper, and they believe their brand of regional cooperation can serve as a model for rural economic development across Alabama. Day said improved collaboration between towns that used to slug it out over projects can help rural areas better compete with bigger cities.
“This project shows that you can work together to overcome a lot of obstacles,” Alford said. “It should be encouraging for a lot of rural communities. The big thing is we didn’t let the county line stop this project. I’ve been in economic development for 42 years, and I have seen that stop lots of projects over the years.”
Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said the Golden Dragon project has provided valuable lessons for the state’s economic development community regarding rural recruitment strategies and workforce training.
“It’s a great story for that region, and it will hopefully give us a template to follow,” he told The Montgomery Advertiser.
ALABAMA-CHINA COMMERCIAL TIES
While Golden Dragon is among only a handful of Chinese-owned businesses currently operating in Alabama, economic development officials believe others will follow as commercial ties between the state and the Asian country continue strengthening. The City of Dothan in March hosted the U.S.-China Manufacturing Symposium, attracting business leaders and officials from both countries. And trade missions to China led by the governor have become common.
China is also a top trading partner for Alabama. Exports approaching $2.5 billion in value were shipped from Alabama to China in 2013, making China the No. 2 market for Alabama-made products, behind only Canada.
Alabama’s auto industry has benefited from the state’s ties to China as well. Last year, nearly $1.5 billion in Alabama-made automobiles and parts were shipped to China, an increase of more than 21 percent from 2012, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce’s International Trade Division. Plastics and chemicals were other top categories for Alabama exports to China.
“Alabama’s stature in the global economy continues to rise, with companies like Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group establishing operations in the state,” Secretary Canfield said. “We intend to work hard to develop new partnerships with Chinese companies to secure new investment and jobs for the state. This project just represents the start.”